Pallas Athena Visits me on the Beach (Sihanoukville, Cambodia)

Sihanoukville is the biggest of a handful of beach towns scattered along Cambodia’s small stretch of coastline. The backpacker hangout, Serendipity Beach, is a tawdry version of the French Riviera where the beaches are lined with dilapidated beach chairs and tattered, mismatched parasols. Every inch of the beachfront is occupied by bars and restaurants, some more successful than others, and all populated by lonely middle-aged sex tourists. Legions of children walk through the sand peddling books, bracelets, bananas, bandanas, and Ray Bans. They speak English fluently, albeit almost entirely in slang learned from tourists, and though the girls are quite sassy, the boys can be downright punks. Behind the children come the legless landmine victims who drag themselves through the sand begging tourists for change. Tourists spend the day lounging in beach chairs basking in a cheap illusion of luxury; the men drink pints of Angkor Beer for $0.50, the women get their toenails painted for $1, everyone smokes their way through $3 bags of weed, and the beachfront restaurants serve pizzas for $5 and happy pizzas for $6.

I came to Sinhanoukville in pursuit of yet another hopelessly romantic adventure – catching a ride on the top of a freight train from Sihanoukville to the neighboring town of Kampot. It was a the only railway the French had built in Cambodia, and with a max speed of around 20 km/hr it was one of the slowest trains in the world. Within hours of my arrival I had located the railway station, only to find it abandoned and overgrown with weeds.   Once again, my dream collapsed in the face of reality.
What to do? Pure escapism was in order: relaxing on the beach and reading books would do just fine. I swapped out my horribly depressing novels on the Khmer Rouge’s genocide for lighter reading – Treasure Island and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
On my third day in Sihanoukville I was sitting on a beach chair, working on my tan and sipping on a mango fruit shake, when an owl appeared from nowhere and landed on my armchair. The owl jumped closer to me, cocked its head and said “Hello, Mark.” I lifted my mango shake to eye-level and inspected it closely, certain that I had accidently ordered a happy shake and that this talking owl was nothing more than a hallucinatory byproduct of a strong marijuana-mango-milkshake.
Before I could make sense of it all, the owl metamorphosed into a beautiful tall blonde woman, dressed in a flowing white robe with a helmet of gold, a massive shield and lance, and a snakeskin breastplate. Ahhh, Athena, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom! Though no one else seemed to notice her, I greeted her and inquired as to the purpose of her visit.
“Mark, I come on behalf of your guardian on Mount Olympus, Hera, wife of mighty Zeus who drives the storm cloud. Hera and I have been reading your blog on regularly, and we are slightly worried about you after the last few posts. You have been traveling for four months now, and, like Odysseus on the island of Scheria, you seem exhausted and weary. Are you in good spirits?”
“I’m doing alright, Athena. I guess I was unprepared for what I saw in Cambodia. I never knew human beings were capable of doing what the Khmer Rouge did. I mean, I’m on vacation, and I thought vacations were supposed to be enjoyable, not depressing!”
“But are you really on vacation? I have often heard you say ‘I’m not on vacation, I’m traveling.’ Your journey is not simply a two-week escape, it’s a direct confrontation with reality, is it not?”
“Yeah, I guess that is true.” I replied.
“Why are you wasting your time on a beach? Why are you reading fantasy books about pirates in the Caribbean? Don’t try to run from where you are, turn and face reality. You must ask yourself why you are traveling.”
“Hmm…I don’t know anymore. I guess I want to learn more about the world around me. I want to broaden myself and experience other cultures while I have the opportunity.”
Athena smiled at me. “Is that not what you have been doing? Was your Cambodian history lesson not part of your quest for knowledge?”
I thought for a moment, and then said, “Yeah, I guess so. But it’s just frustrating to have my opinions and philosophies in a constant state of flux. My mind has switched back and forth so many times that I feel like I am getting further from The Truth, not closer to it!”
“Mark, I am the Goddess of Wisdom. Your frustration is a result of my giving you the knowledge which you seek. Be not frustrated; trust me, Mark, you are getting closer to The Truth. Worry not if it does not make sense at the moment, if you continue on your quest you will emerge from this journey more knowledgeable than you expect.”
“You are right. I am blessed to have the Goddess of Wisdom on my side in this battle. How are things up on Mount Olympus?”
“Zeus who is preoccupied with chasing Earth women across Greece, but Ares is still fuming. He has not forgotten your dalliance with Aphrodite; in fact he is getting more jealous every day. Ares keeps begging Zeus to surround you in monsoon clouds and pummel you with thunderbolts.   Hera is keeping Apollo of the Silver Bow at bay and Zeus has prohibited Ares from attacking you on his own. For now, it’s essentially a stalemate.”
“Ahh, I just want this Greek drama to end, preferably in the form of a comedy, not a tragedy! Is there anything else?” I asked.
“Oh yes, I almost forgot,” Athena said. She reached into the folds of her robe and pulled out an iPhone, which she handed to me. “Here, talk to your guardian, Hera, beautiful and mighty wife of Zeus. But don’t talk too long, because I get hit with roaming charges in Cambodia.”
I accepted the phone and greeted Hera.
“Good news, Mark. Remember that English-teaching job in Spain you applied for?”
“Yeah, of course! I applied for that job ages ago, but I still haven’t heard back from them. I’m traveling blind; I have no idea whether or not I have a job lined up at the end of this adventure!”
“Well, I pulled a few strings for you and got your application approved. You start work in September in Castilla y Leon, Espana. You can improve your Spanish, run from bulls in San Fermin, drink Sangria in Madrid, and travel across Spain and Europe. You will have a great time. Now hang up the phone and get back to traveling! Good luck, Mark!”
“Thanks Hera, talk to you soon!”
So there it was. My council with the gods had renewed my enthusiasm for traveling, given me a fresh perspective on my experiences and presented me with excellent news – I would be living and working in Spain for the next year.
This changed my plans slightly. I now had only about three months to travel through the rest of Cambodia, Vietnam, and China, and another month to ride the Trans-Siberian and hitch-hike across Europe before starting my job. It was going to be a tight schedule if I did not plan it just right. In any case, it was time to get moving towards Vietnam. I downed my mango shake, finished up Treasure Island, and moved on to the small riverside town of Kampot.

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